While interviews often include the odd question about candidate weaknesses and failures, the typical interview focuses on success and achievements. The direction and purpose of interviews is usually around a candidate’s accomplishments, which means that candidates may merely flirt with the topics of problems and issues. They will talk a bit about setbacks and shortcomings, but few will spill the beans on an out and out epic failure. Some candidates may talk about weaknesses when asked but they will generally be restrained and reticent and won’t feel empowered to talk about resounding failures.
In this respect, the interview process may be failing employers. Employers don’t get a rounded view of the applicant; they get a one-dimensional view of applicants based around successes and achievements and a kind of blind spot around how they cope with setbacks, mistakes and failures. This is a shame as all employers will know that their environment is challenging enough for even the most talented candidates to make mistakes and experience setbacks and struggles. However, they are happy to take a guess on whether candidates can actually deliver in a real environment full of ups and downs and failures.
But, the ability to come back from setbacks, should not be taken for granted as research shows that there is actually a “failure” or “success mindset”. This study reported on the WSJ has measured how the brain/human subjects respond to failure (in terms of electrical signals), and shows that there is a success or growth mindset; that is, people who face up to failure and try to learn from it. This growth mindset is what is present in those individuals deemed to be “learning agile”, meaning they will be quick adaptors in changing conditions, resource problem solvers, resilient and able to rise from setbacks and mistakes.
Failure is not something that employers should be afraid of searching out in candidates and delving into as failure is a crucial stepping stone on the path to success as testified by all the successful entrepreneurs in these articles on the BBC (including Richard Branson) and on businesssinsider.com. It really isn’t hard to find successful entrepreneurs talking about past failures.
Employers probably should not be hiring a candidate into a highly challenging role who hasn’t had some kind of failure and without knowing how that candidate has dealt with failure. It’s vital that if you want to improve and grow your business and overcome business challenges, you hire someone with a growth mindset.
So, I believe employers hiring candidates into challenging roles should be actively seeking out candidate’s failures and be very concerned that a candidate who claims to have had none (as they could of course be a genius), but the likelihood is that they do not have a growth mindset.
But, just talking about failures is not enough to indicate a growth mindset (you are not looking for an outpouring of self pity). You want to see candidates who are comfortable talking about failures; are now clear on the lessons learned; who can show how they have applied that learning, and who can show that the person sitting in front of you today is a more effective professional as a result of the learning he or she made from his or her failures.
So, in general, interviews should be expected to talk in some detail about failures as it may be one of the most illuminating forms of assessment available to you.